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I Spent $5200 for a Gay Cruise but Had to Be Isolated Due to COVID

Dave Benbow booked an all-gay cruise in the Mediterranean for $5,200 and was so excited to go.
Then, he tested positive for COVID his first day on board and spend the entire 10 days in isolation.
This is his story, as told to writer Gary Nunn.
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This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Dave Benbow, a 61-year-old from LA who booked a trip on a 10-day Mediterranean all-gay cruise leaving from Rome at the end of August and tested positive for COVID the first day on board. It has been edited for length and clarity.
This would’ve been my 27th Atlantis all-gay cruise. I cherish them because for 10 days, you’re the majority, not the minority. I get to be with my people: the full spectrum of gay men, and no screaming kids.
I like unpacking once, then having a new country to visit daily. Sometimes the anticipation is as fun as the cruise itself. This one was going to be the biggest ever all-gay cruise around Europe: 4,000 gay men would be on board.
Dave Benbow about to board another cruise. Courtesy Dave Benbow
I was most looking forward to Bodrum, Turkey — I’d never been there and wanted to buy some imitation-designer watches as gifts.
Because of the pandemic, this trip had been delayed twice over two years, so I was more than excited to go. The ship — Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas — was brand-new, so I couldn’t wait to see it. I planned to try out their skydive simulator and trampoline-bungee experience.
I took a COVID test before boarding, and it was negative — I was good to go
We had to return a negative Covid test within 48 hours of entering the ship, so I did that at the pharmacy across from my Rome hotel as soon as I arrived. It was negative!
Traveling down to the port outside Rome, I remember I was sweating like crazy. I just chalked it up to Rome being so hot — the temperature was in the high 90s. I ignored the slight tickle in my throat.
A leather outfit Dave Benbow brought for the cruise that he never got to wear. Courtesy Dave Benbow
I was so excited that I unpacked all my things — including fancy dress outfits for the seven themed parties — the minute I arrived. I paid double to have a cabin to myself, which amounted to $5,200. It had a “virtual balcony,” which was a TV showing actual footage from the outside.
Then I was suddenly tired, so I thought to myself that I’d lay down for a few minutes. When I woke up, I’d missed the sail-away party. We were about four hours outside of Rome, and I felt really bad.
Malcolm, our cruise director, had announced over a speaker system that if we felt at all unwell, or if we knew we had anything, we should let the medical team know.
The sail-away party on the Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas. Courtesy Gary Nunn
I did an at-home Covid test in my cabin and saw a very faint double line. My heart sank. Though I wanted to ignore it, I knew I couldn’t.
I did the responsible thing, and called medical staff.
I’ll never forget the nurse’s facial expression when I got there. While I was being responsible and doing the right thing, we both knew I’d also just ruined my own holiday.
As I tested positive, I was told to pack up my cabin and go down to the isolation floor for a minimum of five days: half of my vacation. At first, I was angry at the situation. I’d been so careful over the past two years, and it was the first time I’d gotten COVID. Why now? Then, I got upset. I may or may not have shed a tear.
The isolation cabin was very different from the one I’d paid for
There’s no polite way of saying this: the isolation cabin is a far cry from the rest of the cruise, and it got to me quickly. It’s a windowless room that you can’t leave. It’s certainly no vacation, and definitely not the one I’d paid over $5,000 for.
I unpacked — again — this time sniveling as I did.
Dave Benbow wearing shorts and a white tank top in the isolation cabin. Courtesy Dave Benbow
As the tears fell, between putting away fancy-dress costumes I’d never wear, I sat down, gathered myself and thought: There are two things I can do here. Either I can be really pissed off and throw a fit, or I can figure out how to make this the best thing it can be for what it is. So I had to make a mental adjustment and chose to accept the situation.
There were moments that truly tested me
Don’t get me wrong, in addition to it being so damn boring, there were testing moments.
The first available day I could have potentially come out of isolation was the day we were set to stop in Bodrum, on day five of the cruise. I consoled myself when I’d seen the two preceding stops, Santorini and Mykonos. Bodrum became my new focus.
When I tested positive that morning, I had to draw upon that mental adjustment again. Each morning after was Groundhog Day: get excited, get hopeful, test positive again.
It was a dagger to the heart to press my nose up against the window and watch people getting off the ship to go on my excursions. It was very isolating and frustrating.
I even started to have the thought at around 4 a.m. of, what if I sneak out, just for a walk around the top deck, to get some air? After all, there weren’t guards. The door wasn’t locked. But I didn’t know if I’d get locked out and get in trouble, and I was afraid to test the limits. The good student in me won out: I was going to follow the rules because if I didn’t, it could get worse. I also didn’t want to put others at risk, of course. Being in the isolation cabin put me in a weird headspace.
Then I also realized that at 4 a.m. on an all-gay cruise, the top deck is absolutely packed; that’s where the parties happen!
Strangely, time in isolation passed quickly, and I found ways to occupy myself
I read multiple books and watched many movies. I had an ab roller and used that daily. While I was in limbo, weirdly, days seemed to go quickly.
I posted on the cruise’s Facebook page about my predicament and the number of people who reached out with sweet messages touched me; it really said something about how supportive the LGBTQ community can be when the chips are down.
The ship’s staff were amazing. They’d call down twice a day to check in on me. They sent me care packages. Upon discovering my Dr. Pepper addiction, they left the drink outside my room daily.
One member of the medical team, Blane, sensed me getting increasingly tense because I kept testing positive. I took my tests with him, and as they kept turning up positive, my feelings became increasingly negative; in those moments, he’d talk me off the ledge, and I was grateful he was there. If you were going to get COVID on a cruise, this was the ship to get it on. Thankfully, I wasn’t even that sick: just an annoying runny nose and sore throat.
I wasn’t allowed to leave Italy until I got a negative test result
Once you test positive on the ship, they alert the authorities. Your passport is flagged. You cannot leave Rome till you return a negative test, which seemed weird to me — you’d think they might want you out, but I suppose it’s because they don’t want it spreading.
On day nine, I was still testing positive, and I was freaking out. They’d booked me a COVID hotel just in case. If I didn’t get a negative test soon, I’d miss my flight home.
Dave Benbow the day he tested negative. Courtesy Dave Benbow
By this point, I was resigned to missing my vacation. My new hope was just to be able to leave the country. It was looking increasingly unlikely with every day I tested positive. My boss told me to take a train to France and leave from there, but I told him that my passport was flagged, and that I’d be arrested at the border if I tried it.
Ironically, I tested negative on day 10: the cruise’s final day. I had to wait till the ship’s 4,000 other passengers left so I could disembark.
Though I was relieved, I was also a little in shock. It took me two days to adjust to non-cabin life.
I learned a lot from the experience
I was proud I didn’t allow myself to get hysterical or give into my darker impulses by ringing guest services and demanding to be released, because I know that wouldn’t have been safe for anyone. I’m glad I wasn’t that guy; I have the inclination to be him sometimes. Instead, I learned I could accept something so bizarre and random.
Also, I learned to look on the lighter side. Ten — out of 4,000 — of us were on deck 3, the isolation deck, with COVID. They’d all got it in the last two days. I had it the longest. In that sense, I was the winner!
Dave Benbow in Rome after the cruise. Courtesy Dave Benbow
More seriously, I learned to always get insurance. Everyone asks me if I got my money back and the answer is no, but that’s on me. Atlantis pushed their travel insurance multiple times and I didn’t do it, because I never have. So to save myself $200, I lost $5,200.
I’ll definitely cruise again: I’m doing the Atlantis Mexico cruise next month. If you’ve been to your favorite restaurant 27 times, you don’t stop going after one bad meal. Atlantis has even upgraded me as a goodwill gesture. And I’ll book this very same ship and cruise next summer so I finally get to see the Odyssey of the Seas. Plus, I have a great story I’m going to tell at dinner parties for at least the next 10 years.



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